When In Rome
The Master of the Household finally stepped out into the light. His coiled brunette hair and beard were managed, though unruly. From the way he carried his muscular build and authority, he was clearly no bookkeeper. To Xena’s experienced eyes, this was a former soldier and senior commander. His dark eyes regarded the two thoughtfully. “My apologies if these guards are necessary, but you don’t look, or act, like special emissaries of the Pontifical College.”
Xena gave the Roman the benefit of a wide false smile while keeping her eyes on the encroaching soldiers. “That’s just how special we are.”
There was another moment of hesitation, while a quick but thorough examination was made of the partners. Finally the regal hand was raised to prevent the advance of the Guard. “There is a room. One where our discussions will not be disturbed. It is down that corridor, second door on the right. I will join you shortly.”
The command and possibly Xena’s glare, encouraged the Guard to back away and sheathe their weapons. Glancing at Gabrielle and receiving her assent, Xena moved through the soldiers and the two entered the indicated hallway.
At the second door, they descended into a room unlike any they had seen before. At first it appeared to be in the heart of the exterior garden, but it soon became apparent in the flickering torchlight that it was actually windowless. That from ceiling to floor, the walls were covered by a continuous garden fresco. Amongst the leaves and branches were scattered birds of every kind and plumage.
What was even more unusual was that despite the richness of the walls, the furnishings were austere in the extreme. There were no household Gods, no divans or containers of food, no gold or silver proclaiming the power of the occupant. A few simple carpets on the simple mosaic floor, two wicker chairs, and a solid but plain desk covered by folded papyri and writing implements. Gabrielle was drawn to study them while Xena examined the room with a worried eye. With forced casualness, she asked Gabrielle, “So what was your battle plan again?”
“Battle? Oh, you mean my war of words? Why the Emperor must stop the raising of What’s His Name to Capo di tutti Capi?”
Gabrielle began to pace as she spoke, and it seemed to Xena that her youthful body was reflecting her true age for once, as her enthusiasm for her project grew.
“Okay,” she began. “Here’s what I think we should say. I figure that the basic thrust will be a metaphor. That War is not some sort of cheerleader, or even a supporter of one side or other. You can never have War on your side. He’s more like a fire that greedily demands fuel and more fuel and takes it wherever, however, he can find it. That who wins is never important, just the conflagration. And when you’ve had enough war, He’ll still be hungry. Given enough power, He won’t need you to create wars, He’ll start them himself just to watch the burning.”
She paused, her eyes glowing. “Right?”
Again there was only a non-committal, “Uh huh.”
Ignoring the lack of enthusiasm, Gabrielle rolled on. “That from what I’ve read and heard, what the Emperor needs is peace. He needs a chance to consolidate borders, deal with the plague, starvation, and now, get this, devaluation of currency! And all that is just going to get worse if he has to feed this fire of this God. Then I figured I’d work up to an emotional crescendo about individuals making a difference at a key point in history, giving individuals a chance to make their own decisions, not something based on what a self-serving God wants, even if that choice is to worship another deity of their own choice… if that inspires them to make their own… positive contribution…”
Gabrielle slowed the flow of words when she finally caught on that her passions in this argument were not exactly being shared. “What?” she demanded.
Xena looked about the room again. “I think we may have a problem.”
More than slightly pissed off, Gabrielle placed her hands on her hips. “This is a new one, right? Because I think I’m up to speed on things like us dying at noon. What else?”
“You remember that place in Athens, the Stoa Poikile?”
“You mean the Stoics? Those guys who thought if they reduced all sensation, then they wouldn’t fear death? That the Gods didn’t exist, that all was reason and to be dealt with reason and, what else, oh that one had to go with the flow to find your purpose. What a crock! You don’t think that...?”
Xena spread her hands about to indicate the austerity of the room.
“Oh crap,” was expelled from Gabrielle’s lips like air from a balloon. She froze before beginning to pace again. “New game plan.”
“So this deputy Emperor or whatever, wasn’t in your reading?”
“In fifty years, maybe. When it’s been reported, become history. This is now.” She turned to the desk and began quickly scanning the reams of scrolls. To her surprise, much of what was written was in Greek.
Xena pursed her lips and thought. “Well, I guess our only chance is whatever you did at the Fates.”
Gabrielle stopped her reading. Swallowed. “I wish you hadn’t brought that up. Because that rested on what happens here. And how do we convince someone that we’re about to be killed by a living, breathing God if he doesn’t believe in them?”
A voice from the doorway said, “That’s not quite true. Certainly the Gods influence and sway, but only as men deposit their faith in them.”
As they turned to face their host, his face remained impassive, and he wore the simple toga with a confidence and gravity that radiated from his person.
“Phrased in that manner, we would agree,” Gabrielle said diplomatically.
Now Xena began to pace about the room, her old animosity stirring her guts in the presence of the authoritative Roman. “Before we get into any discussions, I need to know if any of this matters. Are we wasting our very precious time? Do you even have the power to make a decision?”
The Roman seemed perplexed until Gabrielle hurriedly interjected, “She means, do you have the Emperor’s ear?”
The Roman appeared even more puzzled for a moment, but reading something in Gabrielle’s expression, he nodded and replied, “Certainly it can be said I have the Emperor’s ear.”
Unsure what had passed between the two, Xena hesitated. But the choice of not trusting Gabrielle and any other option, was no choice at all. “Then you’re on, Bard.”
And so the battle of words began. By the time dawn began to appear on the fringes of the corridor outside, Gabrielle’s voice had begun to become ragged. Xena remained outside the fray while the Roman seemed to be enjoying the discussion, but seemingly impervious to the arguments or the passage of time.
“Of course. God is the universe, the universe is God. The wise and virtuous learns one's place in the scheme. The goal of human existence is to live consistently with Nature, which means consistently with Reason.”
Even if this was Gabrielle’s battle, Xena could not let this go. She interrupted, “Reason? We’re talking about war, not nature or reason. D’you think Carthage was reasonable? Don’t you see that a mania like that could only come from damned whispers in the night from a real, bloodthirsty God, who cared nothing about the deaths on either side?
The Roman tilted his head in interest. “Everything is by nature made but to die."
“Not that way. I’ve heard those damned whispers,” Xena acknowledged. Her eyes flared for a moment as she spat out, “I was there when Rome destroyed Carthage.”
The Roman shrugged. “Rebuilt it, you mean.”
Xena laughed. “Rebuilt, using bones as mortar on burnt fields.”
Gabrielle interrupted in frustration. “But don’t you see, Xena? He sees that as simply the flow of history to this point.”
“And he’s just going with the flow?” Xena spat out. “He actually likes the smell of burning bodies? Then why worship War? Cut out the middle man and simply worship Death.”
There was the slightest tinge of anger in the Roman’s face now.
Gabrielle quickly picked up a parchment from the desk and began to recite from it, “He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation. But if you have no sensation, neither will you feel any harm; and if you acquire another kind of sensation, you will be a different kind of living being and you will not cease to live.”
The Roman nodded.
“But that’s the antithesis of everything this ascension will accomplish. You will be enflaming their desires, turning them to a new heat and fire. You say you want to follow the river of history, when instead you’re prepared to drop a great massive rock in the stream. Turning Rome to the worship of Mars, and Mars alone, will divert and change the course of Rome.”
Finally there seemed to be interest in the Roman’s eyes. “You remind me of my daughter. She too is rather headstrong, but trustworthy.” He thought for a moment. “Prove that statement well, and we might have agreement.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I might be able to do that.”
Xena felt the weight of a dozen lifetimes ease just a little. She moved through the doorway to view the last of the shadows and calculated the time left until noon. “I’m betting she can," she stated confidently. “And when she does, is there a chance we could have some time to ourselves?”
Gabrielle looked up, curiosity being replaced by what Xena hoped was more than casual interest.
“If only because I still owe her a decent Roman bath before we have to… go.”
“Should our business be concluded in time, I think that can be arranged. I believe I have a bathing area somewhere about this house that might afford some privacy, if that is what you wish.”
There was a sound, almost a moan, from both partners that startled the Roman. “May I take it that such a plan would be desirable?”
Trying desperately to suppress the pictures and person that they were both associating with the word ‘desirable’, the special envoys simply nodded. The Roman quickly resumed their discussions, but could not help but notice that as Xena resumed her pacing, it was with a somewhat uneven stride. And though the bard’s concentration on the negotiations was not compromised, she seemed to periodically fidget unaccountably.
‘Special emissaries from the Pontifical College indeed’, thought Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, Emperor of Rome.
To be continued...
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